Arun Tejasvi Chaganty about articles blog thoughts research

Big Red Button

This is my entry for Shaastra’s Online Science Fiction Writing contest (Shaastra is my college’s annual technical festival). It was judged by Cory Doctrow, and won first place. I am estatic. In retrospect, I’ve noticed several places where I really screwed up my “flow” and lost “coherency” (quotes because I can’t exactly define either) and other where I just pushed ahead too fast, but I guess Cory liked the underlying story (hey, I’m not complaining ;-)). Either way, credit where it’s due:

Big Red Button

That uniform white light permeating through every corner of the room never failed to irk Johr. With no shadows, the room had this two dimensional touch that wasn’t particularly appreciated with most humans on the workforce. Perhaps it shed light on their two dimensional lives, a growing cause for discontent everywhere in the Empirium Galactica.

Ever since the promulgation of the equal labour laws, proclaiming an equal footing amongst intelligent artificial creatures (most commonly known by the mildly derogative word “robots”), and men, huge waves of social and economic disturbances hit the shores of the Empire. On one hand you had the indisputable advantages of increased output and efficiency, leading to a steep rise in universal stocks (and CEO salary figures). On the other, you had ego malfunctions leading to mass resignations, and hordes of utterly jobless individuals. Of course, in the words of the Central Advisory Board (a distinguished set of economists who possessed the right combination of egotism and delusional capability to believe that they could predict and correct an economy spanning 1.4 million light years, with every form of trade possible):

“Ego is the biggest liability a company can have. It shrouds that which is real, and leads to an inefficiency in the firm, and thus the market.”

Hypocrisy was certainly the order of the day.

Still, many people (the real kind) saw this as a perfect opportunity to offload their work to their diligent peers, who couldn’t quite reject it. This slowly drew more honest workers finding “better” uses for their time, to reconsider their work ethic. At the end of one Galactic year, hidden employment reached an all time high of 78%. But Johr wasn’t one of them.

It seemed like the universe as a whole had reached this new minimum of total energy. Nobody needed to do anything and nothing that needn’t be done was done. For any human task that needed doing, a machine could do it. Better.

So, it was a very unexpected scene to see Johr restlessly pacing around, lost in lost thought. For 38 years, he had built systems of all scales and degrees of complexity, in the process founding the largest android manufacturing unit in the universe. He had brought the future of automation, today. In a way, his work was essential to making the law possible. Making artificial beings real enough to compete with humans. And not once did he look back once. Till now.

A loud knock on his door shook Johr out of his dreams. “Don’t you think it’s getting a bit late? Shall we leave?”. Johr looked up, and he couldn’t really help himself. The voice was immaculate in its articulation, sensuous in pitch; perfect. Diana, his colleague was at the door. There was an aura of perfection around her. Her clothes were cleanly pressed, her hair was smooth and glossy (though rather boringly brown in comparison to some of the youth fashion statements), figure precise and even her nails were exact in dimension and proportion.

“Ah, you are right. Let’s be off then. It’s not like I had much to do in any case”. He stood up, adjusted his suit, and proceeded to the exit, taking Diana’s hand along the way. They began to proceed through the lit corridors to the mass transit shuttles. Johr looked fondly at these marvels of social technology, carrying tens of thousands of people from where they were to where they needed to go. Or at least, where they thought they needed to go.

“How about we take to the streets instead?”, Johr informally proposed to her.

“Why the devil? It’s already 8:30, and you’d miss your dinner.”

“Doesn’t matter, the ensuing discussion shall provide enough food for thought, my stomach be damned”.

Hand in hand, they crossed the shuttle docking bay, and descended the elevator to the streets below. The streets weren’t quite as bustling as one would have expected by extrapolating population density. These days, if you wanted something, you simply had to punch it in a small black keypad, and it would be sent to you in the next goods dispatch (which were hardly minutes apart). Still, some old couples could be seen walking the streets, trying to stir up some old nostalgia that they hung on to.

“Diana darling, I need to talk. I need somebody to listen or even just pretend to listen to what I say. I’m wondering, what’s life come to? When I was small, we had these simple engines. You screwed them to a block, pumped it some fuel, and wow you’re done. I used to play with these things while I was in the Creche. The other kids played with those small alphabet blocks, I played with this object of raw, unchained power. I put the damn thing on anything and gave it the power of motion. Now, look at one of these new fangled fusion propellers. Forget playing with it, I can’t even touch the damn thing without being incinerated. Like hell a kid is going to get his hands on that. I mean, it’s not quite that the block had somewhere to to go, but still, the thrill of watching it zoom, that’s what I’m talking about. The thrill of conquest.”

Diana wore a face of conservative confusion. She really didn’t want to get into this, but at this point, it wasn’t like she had much of a choice. “I don’t mean to sound harsh or anything, but honestly, why would one want to put an engine on a damn block? What does it prove? What does it achieve? Isn’t it just a terrible waste of energy?”

“Yes, I was quite the entropy bandit then. I really didn’t have a reason. But, that’s my problem. Life… is so artificial. But in my head, I had purpose. I really convinced myself that the sole aim and goal of my life is the get that 3x3x3 block of alloy steel moving at 2/3rd the speed of sound. God only knows why. Now, don’t you grimace at the mention of God. There are those among us who still believe in its existence”

She was more angsty now, “I, for one, consider them delusional fools. Surely the rational mind as advanced as yours can not believe in so shallow a concept as a god.”

“Perhaps. But maybe there is a rational explanation for it somewhere. We often question ourselves too much. We need to convince ourselves that we have some greater purpose. As I said, I found some greater purpose in making engines, in creating robots; robots like you for example. There must be those who weren’t quite as lucky. They need something to believe in. Look at it like this. Slowly, we’ve replaced every component of our work life with a machine -”

“But look at what possibilities machines have given you. Could you possibly create me if you did not have an engine, a drill or a screw?”. Anger was not quite the feeling that Johr had intended to raise. He took his time to reply, looking deeply at the road ahead, and at the strange buildings around him. The buildings in each sector had been remodelled to redirect wind flows through the city. As a result, all of them had the same aerodynamic shape made of the same material, and all colored the same. The net result, in Johr’s mind was the death of architecture. The death of beauty, and of the natural chaos of human order.

“No. I can’t deny that. Every machine widened our scope, our horizons. But at the same time, I feel, may be it narrowed another section, of our population. Since the advent of the automated fabricating unit, the welder no longer has a purpose to his life. He no longer makes choices of execution, he can no longer experiment and learn. All he has to do is press a button.”

“The welder’s job is so… menial. With a robot to take care of welding, he can move up, and do something else in life. Something like you.”

“Ha! My own life is becoming redundant. Slowly everything there is is becoming menial. Look at programming. 30-40 years ago, thousands of bright minds would punch out millions of lines of code, thinking that they were creating the future. Then we started to write programs that wrote programs, and made that task menial. I fear we have made thought itself menial. We have consecrated the holiness of the human mind by selling bit by bit every thing that supported it from underneath. Sure, thought still lives, but if one can not take into his own hands the power to forge that thought into reality, what’s the point of having the thought at all?”

“Why to increase the efficiency of the human race! Have you been forgotten the very precepts of society?”

“To what end? So another generation of men drone on in their drudgery to feed yet another generation, which grows to the same damn thing over and over again? Doesn’t the thought scare you?”

Diana was silent. She couldn’t say anything rational at this point, and was having second thoughts about the rationality of the direction the discussion was taking.

“Doesn’t the thought that everything we’ve made is built upon this tiny pebble of the human impetus shock you?”, Johr continued. “Free Will. That’s what makes us get up every morning. For centuries, man has chose to get up, and to do something. But today? Today, what’s left to choose? Three hundred and twenty seven varieties of coffee, seventeen hundred flavours of chocolate, some obscene number of lipstick colors and flavours, and one button to start a factory at full capacity. And one more button to stop it. We’ve made our choice.”

And on quite theatrical cue, the overhead trams stopped. The faint hum of the factories stopped. All that could be heard was the sound of the pleasant breeze directed by the dull aerodynamic buildings. And the soft sounds of breathing.

“We’ve hit the reset button, dear Diana. I love you, I truly do, but you can never love me. Love is irrational. We as humans are irrational. We make the world only to break it again. Perhaps we are caught in this loop of artificial life. Perhaps it is we not you who are truly artificial. Perhaps we are the ones bound by Free Will, not freed by it. Perhaps.”

With a tear in his eye, he hugged Diana, and flipped the power switch carefully nestled behind her right ear.